LONDON -- Raise your hand if you believe this story:
A multimillionaire author, also a senior figure in Britain's governing party, is sitting home one night, minding his own business, when he receives a phone call from a prostitute. She tells him that one of her clients is spreading stories about her relationship with the author and that she is being harassed by smut-seeking newspapers intent on publicizing it.
The author voices surprise and protests that he has never met the prostitute, let alone purchased her services. But he is acutely aware that the bad publicity -- even if untrue -- could harm his political career, and he listens sympathetically to her story. Several more phone calls follow, and each time the prostitute sounds more distressed. Finally, while still denying he knows the woman but expressing concern over her plight, the author offers her money to leave the country temporarily and arranges a $3,000 payment.
Sound strange? How about this one:
A newspaper, acting on a tip from a self-described client of the prostitute, contacts her and shows her a photograph of the author. She is unfamiliar with the author's name and position, but she positively identifies the man in the photo as someone who has purchased her services. Appealing to her patriotism and her pocketbook, the newspaper arranges for her to telephone the author and explain that he is in danger of exposure. After several conversations, all of which are tape-recorded by the newspaper without the author's knowledge, he offers her money to leave the country. The newspaper, continuing its pursuit of scandal, photographs the exchange of money between an associate of the author and the prostitute.
Both tales end the same way -- with an expose' and photographs on the newspaper's front page. Within hours of publication, the author issues a statement insisting he has never met the prostitute and has been trapped by the newspaper. He acknowledges, however, that he spoke to her, and "foolishly" arranged to help her leave the country. He resigns his political position.
Each version raises a number of questions, all of which have been discussed here at length since the scandal first broke last October. Questions such as: Could the author-politician really have been that stupid? Or: Could the newspaper really have been that sleazy? For legal purposes, however, only one question counts: Did the author-politician actually purchase and have sex with the prostitute on that night last September? The author says no.The paper -- and the prostitute -- say yes.
This is the crux of the libel case that Jeffrey Archer has brought against Express Newspapers, proprietors of a British tabloid called The Star. For the past two weeks, as the case has unraveled in a courtroom here, it has been what one wag described as "the best fun to be had in London ... without taking your clothes off."
From the start, it was clear that the case would be a crowd pleaser. Archer, two of whose seven bestselling novels ("Kane and Abel" and "First Among Equals") have been made into television mini-series, is an international celebrity. His resignation last October as deputy chairman of the Conservative Party caused a major upheaval here. At the same time, tabloid newspapers like The Star, which provide the main news diet for millions of Britons, are driven by cutthroat competition and are notoriously loose with the truth.
Typical of the ferocity of that competition is that it was not even The Star that developed and broke the Archer story. That was the News of the World, a Sunday tabloid whose Oct. 27 article carefully avoided saying that Archer actually had had intercourse with the woman, leaving selected portions of the taped conversations and the cash payment to speak for themselves. Archer has a separate lawsuit pending against the News of the World.
So apparently dismayed was The Star at being scooped, however, that it ran its own Nov. 1 story, based on an interview with a relative of the prostitute, stating outright that Archer had paid for sex with her.
No matter which side you believe, the drama currently underway in Courtroom 13 at the Law Courts on the Strand in central London has something for everyone. Politics. Sex. Love. Lust. Lies. Power. Money. The mighty brought low and the low brought even lower.
Spectators begin lining up hours before the court opens each day, hoping for a chance to squeeze onto one of the six narrow public benches inside before the "full" sign goes up on the door. So many journalists have turned up to cover the proceedings that the judge, an elderly man who seems alternately bemused and bored by the testimony, has on occasion invited the overflow to share his bench.
In pursuit of the truth, a jury of four women and eight men has heard Archer describe his love for his wife, his close relationship with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and the damage done by the story to his political career. They have also learned intimate details of Archer's life. Under probing questioning by his lawyer, for example, Archer acknowledged that he is a man of refined tastes, preferring expensive "cellar wine" to mundane house varieties.
Well dressed, cleanshaven and tanned, Archer, 47, appeared during several days on the witness stand to be precisely what he is -- a clever, tightly controlled, relentless achiever with a bit of the Sammy Glick about him. Elected to Parliament at age 29, he subsequently resigned after a disastrous investment left him close to bankruptcy. Never one to mope, he then wrote a novel based on the financial scam that had left him destitute.
It soon became a transatlantic best seller, and he followed it with six more, all of which were hugely successful. By 1985, he had reestablished his bank balance and reputation and was asked by Thatcher to take over as deputy party chairman, an appointment Conservative strategists thought would add a bit of dash to the staid Tory image. According to testimony in the libel case, Archer hoped eventually to take over as party chairman.
As described by himself and his lawyer, Robert Armstrong, Archer would have had nothing to gain and everything to lose by openly picking up a London streetwalker in a busy neighborhood, paying her the equivalent of about $115 for quick sex in a seedy hotel and then attempting to lie about it. His mistake, they argue, was in being so fearful of the unrestrained power and depravity of the tabloid press that he was prepared to pay off a woman he never met to avoid even the appearance of a scandal over something for which he was blameless. If Archer was not now telling the truth, why would he compound the disgrace and embarrassment the story had caused by dredging it all up, in excruciating detail, in court?
In his closing argument at yesterday's court session, Armstrong described the story as "wholly false," turned by The Star from a "backstreet bedroom farce into a wicked plot to destroy a human being."
If Archer gained credibility during his own testimony, however, he may have lost some as the defense presented its case. One newspaper reporter, Adam Rafael of The Observer, a "serious" Sunday paper carefully distinguished from the tabloids, testified that Archer had told him he had met the woman casually six months previously. Archer denied meeting her and denied telling Rafael that he had.
Although the editor of The Star did not testify, his counterpart at the News of the World did. Archer, he said, had telephoned him repeatedly on the night before the story broke, alternately begging him not to run the story and threatening him if he did. Those conversations, too, were taped by the newspaper, unbeknownst to Archer.
In his own closing argument, defense counsel Michael Hill described Archer as a man with "some fantastic fictional picture of himself in his mind" that drove him to the prostitute, who had then "lied and lied and lied" both to reporters and to the jury.
Archer was unquestionably helped by the testimony of his wife, Mary, a Cambridge University professor who is the undisputed heroine of the case. Day after day, since the proceedings opened July 7, she has appeared at her husband's side -- a neat, attractive figure with short black hair, doggedly scribbling notes on a legal pad. Reporters have compared her supportive and fiercely loyal demeanor to that of Betsy North, whose husband Oliver has been appearing in a different sort of proceeding across the Atlantic.
From Mary Archer, the jury has learned that her husband has "excellent skin," with "no spots or blemishes anywhere," contrary to what the prostitute had testified about the skin on her client's back.
Far from being familiar with the ways of prostitutes, Mary Archer testified, her husband would probably run the other way in fright if he encountered one by accident. It seemed perfectly plausible to her, knowing Jeffrey, that he would feel sorry for a woman he had described as sounding "frightened and desperate." Only rarely did Mary Archer lose control on the witness stand. Occasionally she wept quietly, and once she shouted at the editor of The Star.
The main attraction throughout, however, has been 36-year-old Monica Coghlan, the prostitute known to Archer in his telephone conversations with her as "Debbie."
Alternating between hysterical weeping, shouting and soft-voiced calm, Coghlan told the court she had been driven into prostitution after being sexually abused as a teen-ager. Since then, she said, she had slept with thousands of men for money, all of which she had either squandered on herself or spent on clothing for her young son.
Coghlan has maintained throughout that she is little more than a pawn of more powerful figures -- including Archer and the press. She has denied being paid by the newspaper for her help, and maintains that she received only about $10,000 for "expenses."
Her most attention-getting testimony came when Coghlan detailed what she described as "the sex act" with the man she said was Archer.
After meeting him on the street near Victoria railway station, she said, she took him to room 6A of the nearby Albion Hotel. He gave her 50 pounds, and "I told him that if he took his time and I took my time and made it last a bit longer, it would be another 20 pounds, and he gave me a 20-pound note. Then we undressed."
Still, she said, "it was over very quickly, about 10 minutes, what with getting undressed and the actual sex."
"Because it was over so quickly," Coghlan testified, "I suggested that he relax for a while and he could try again ... I lit a cigarette and I laid down on the bed with him."
"Go on," Hill gently prompted.
"Well, to sort of break the ice ... I asked him what he did for a living. He said 'I sell cars,' and he had no sooner said that when he jumped off the bed and said he should go move his car."
The client, she said, dressed and left the room, and did not return.